It's possible that no filmmaker has been more prolific in such a short period of time than Joe Swanberg, who has directed more than 20 features in less than a decade. He's a distinctly 21st-century artist, taking advantage of digital advancements to make the cheaply produced, extremely intimate character studies that quickly became the paragon known as mumblecore. Swanberg's honest, naturalistic portraits of confused young people in movies like "Hannah Takes the Stairs" and "Nights and Weekends" (both of which helped launch the career of Greta Gerwig) reflected the filmmaker's growing confidence in his abilities each time out.
It was about two years ago, when he acted in the bigger-budget horror-comedy "You're Next" directed by his friend Adam Winegard, that Swanberg realized advanced production values weren't as daunting as they initially seemed. "I felt a little less scared about it," he said. Still, when he went into production on "Drinking Buddies," fears lingered. "There was concern that I couldn't do what I wanted to do," he said. That dissipated when the movie premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and audiences responded kindly.
These days, Swanberg receives countless emails and student projects from budding filmmakers inspired by his progress. "I always tell them that their first couple of movies are their chances to play around," he said. "You have the benefit of no expectations the first couple of times out." He sees even greater potential for young filmmakers who follow in his footsteps. "Kids are starting to make their first features in high school," he said. "Becoming a director is going to be a very different kind of thing."
In 2007, New York's IFC Center celebrated the work of Swanberg and his cohorts in a series called "The New Talkies: Generation DIY." Swanberg recalls seeing that his third feature, "Hannah Takes the Stairs," was trending on The New York Times' website. "It was a really weird moment for me to realize that this little thing we shot in an apartment was being googled as much as studio movies," he said.
Suddenly gaining tremendous exposure for his low budget and very personal movies, Swanberg felt extremely uncomfortable dealing with backlash to his work. "The next couple of years were spent really dealing with that and figuring a way out," he said. "Hopefully, you can see it in the movies."
Moving beyond the microbudget features that gave him his start and translating his sensibilities into more mainstream projects. "My end point now is to entertain an audience," he said. "I feel a deep sense of obligation to hold up my end of the bargain when somebody pays for a ticket to my movie."
Magnolia Pictures releases "Drinking Buddies," which co-stars Anne Kendrick and Olivia Wilde, later this summer. The feature Swanberg made before that, "All the Light in the Sky," comes out in the fall. He also directed a holiday movie called "Happy Christmas" with Lena Dunham, Mark Webber, Melanie Lynskey and Anna Kendrick late last year and hopes to bring it to festivals in early 2014. Meanwhile, with the help of an agent, he has been taking meetings in Los Angeles to consider other projects.